Abide: Genesis 42-50

  • Throughout the Old Testament we learn much about the relationships of tribes, clans, and family groups. We began discussing Israel’s family in the last episode, focusing on Joseph, the favored son sold into Egypt whose meteoric rise in Egyptian politics through the spiritual gift of interpreting dreams ultimately provided a land inheritance that would keep the family together. What can we learn in the last chapters of Genesis about spiritual gifts, brotherly love, and how understanding biblical narrative can make sacred stories more clear? We discuss that, and much more, on today’s episode of “Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast.”

  • Throughout the Old Testament we learn much about the relationships of tribes, clans, and family groups. We began discussing Israel’s family in the last episode, focusing on Joseph, the favorite son sold into Egypt, whose meteoric rising in Egyptian politics through the spiritual gift of interpreting dreams, ultimately provided the land inheritance that would keep the family together. What can we learn in the last chapters of Genesis about spiritual gifts, brotherly love, and how understanding Biblical narrative can make sacred stories more clear? We discuss that and much more on today’s episode of Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast.


    My name is Joseph Stuart. I’m the Public Communications Specialist for the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University. Kristian Heal is a research fellow at the institute and each week we will be discussing the week’s block of reading from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ Come, Follow Me Curriculum. We aren’t here to present a lesson, but rather hit on a few key themes from the scripture block so as to help fulfill the Maxwell Institute’s mission to inspire and fortify Latter-Day Saints and their testimonies of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and engage the world of religious ideas.


    Today we are joined by one of our research assistants, Rachel Madsen, an English Teaching Major here at BYU. After graduating, Rachel plans to teach in secondary schools and eventually obtain a graduate degree in educational leadership to work in administration. Growing up around the world, one of the only constants in Rachel’s life was the 1999 film rendition of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat with Donny Osmond. She has made it very clear to us that after watching the film over 100 times, she has memorized the entire script verbatim and thus, is probably the most single most qualified student to be speaking on the last few chapters of Genesis. Rachel, welcome to the podcast.


    Rachel Madsen: Great to be here.


    Joseph Stuart: We are glad to have you here. Now Kristian, what’s going on in Genesis chapters 42-50?


    Kristian Heal: Genesis chapters 42-45 contain the conclusion of the story of Joseph and his brothers. Famine is again the catalyst for a journey to Egypt. The brothers return home with food, but the resolution of the crisis of the famine produces another crisis, Simeon is held captive in Egypt until the brothers return with Benjamin. But Jacob is reluctant to send Benjamin to Egypt so that Simeon can be set free. When the brothers first arrived at Egypt there was a moment of recognition. The narrator tells us that when Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them. A compelling drama that follows brings about the fulfillment of Joseph’s dreams and ends in the final moment of recognition. The remainder of the chapters fulfilled the same purpose of those end scenes in books or movies that tie up all the loose ends and explain how everything else plays out. In chapter 46, the narrative, once again told from Jacob or Israel’s perspective, describes how he set out from the promised land to be reunited with his beloved son. God visits Jacob as he’s about to leave the promised land and reassures him that his family will become a great nation in Egypt. “ I myself will go down with you to Egypt,” God says, “…and I myself will also bring you back.” The reconciliation of father and son is interrupted by the important task of reciting the genealogical lists, showing just how far the promises of Abraham have been fulfilled. Jacobs’ family size, about seventy in number, ties in with the idea that 70 is a perfect number, suggesting that God’s work was complete at this point. As the chapter closes, Jacob is finally and movingly reunited with his lost son. Joseph introduces Jacob to Pharaoh in chapter 47 and the house of Israel is given land to settle in Egypt. They are safe and secure and separated from the promised land. Then the story turns to Joseph, describing how he administered to the kingdom, to feed the people and enrich Pharoah. The impoverishing of Egypt and enriching of Pharaoh is either further testimony of how relentlessly things prosper under Joseph’s care, or if read typologically, a lovely image of how we need to give all we have to Christ in order to be saved. Two chapters of blessings follow, prompted by Jacob’s impending death. First, Jacob blesses Joseph’s two sons with the covenant blessings of Abraham, adopting them into his family. Once again, preferring a younger to an elder son. Then Jacob blesses his sons often and enigmatically. These blessings and parallel blessings in Deuteronomy have been interpreted within the Jewish and Christian traditions for millennia. After bestowing his final blessings, Jacob asks to be buried with his kin in the land of Israel, a request Joseph fulfills in chapter 50. That chapter ends with the final reconciliation of the brothers and a description of Joseph growing old, dying, and being embalmed and entombed in Egypt. This is an unusual place to end the book of Genesis perhaps. It is certainly the end of an era, the lives of the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob by whose name the Lord would ever more be known. But the chosen people are exiled from the place that God prepared for them, but like Adam and Eve before them, God is with them and preparing to guide them back home.


    Joseph Stuart: That was lovely, Kristian. I’m really interested in the idea that Joseph recognized his brothers and that seems to be much more than, oh hey there are those guys that sold me into slavery! Is there something more that’s going on here?


    Kristian Heal: Yeah, I think that this moment of recognition is a really fascinating experience and in fact, a fascinating element of this story. Recognition is called an anagnorisis in literary studies. It’s an important aspect of many dramatic tales, both in scripture and literature alike. This is the moment in which the lost hero returns and is finally recognized, as in the Odyssey. Or when Jesus is finally recognized on the road to Ammeaus. These are examples of one kind of anagnorisis, when a main character discovers the true identity of another character, with the result of the narrative radically changing. The other kind of anagnorisis is when a main character understands something about themselves. This was seen last week in the story of Judah and Tamar, at the moment when Judah understands that he is the father of Tamar’s child. So recognition often happens after the fact. “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers,” warns the epistle to the Hebrews, “for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Sometimes we don’t recognize the experiences we are having until after that has actually happens. It’s only when thinking back that we realize that something profound has happened. This was the experience of the disciples for example, on the road to Ammeaus, “Did not our hearts burn within us,” they said, “while he talked with us along the way and while he opened up to us the scriptures?” We may even entertain the Lord, and not be aware of His true identity but it seems that the feeling of that moment will always remain.


    Joseph Stuart: Yeah, it seems to me that these moments of anagnorisis come in moments of self discovery, where someone is discovering something about themselves, or about themselves in a relation to others. I see that happening in Genesis, what do you think?


    Kristian Heal: Yeah, exactly. This seems to be a theme which we’ve noticed throughout the story of Genesis. And a particularly lovely moment of self-discovery that we sort of right at the beginning of the book of Genesis and Moses chapter 1, in the Joseph Smith translation of Genesis, this kind of prelude, where Moses realizes who he is. “Thou art my Son,” God says to him. Although it appears that kind of a-ha moment, the moment of recognition doesn’t really happen until Moses is confronted by Satan and says, “I’m the son of God.” He kind of realizes what that actually means. So when did this moment happen for Joseph. When did he realize what was happening with him? Did it happen when he saw his dream? When his father made him a long-sleeve coat? On the road to Egypt as a slave? In Potiphar’s house? The prison? Or when he saw the dreams fulfilled and that revealed, or when he saw his dreams fulfilled and revealed his true identity to his brothers? We may not ever know when, but we certainly know that Joseph did realize who he was and what his role was in saving his father’s household. And even that his brothers’ actions played a part in that role. At the very end of the story, when his brothers come to him, no longer benefiting from the protection of their father, they come and finally ask, that they suggest was prompted by their father, for his forgiveness and Joseph tells them to have no fear. “Have no fear, for though you intended me harm, God intended it for good so as to bring about the present result, the survival of many people.” So in these final words of Joseph’s in the book of Genesis is revealed another great moment of recognition, and that is our own recognition that God intends it for good in our lives too. As Elder Holland recently taught on the BYU campus, “God is perfectly and thoroughly, always and forever, good. And everything he does is for our good. I promise you,” he said, “that God does not lie awake nights trying to figure out ways to disappoint us or harm us, or crush our dreams, or our faith”  Still it might seem sometimes that is exactly what is happening. The righteous do not always prosper, nor do the wicked always suffer. This is why we read the books of Job and Ecclesiastes along with the rest of the Bible. But it is a joyful act and peace giving moment when we finally recognize God acting for good in our lives, whatever happens to us.


    Joseph Stuart: Thanks for that, Krisitan. It brings to mind the idea of redemptive suffering and about how that can sometimes be used to ask people to give more than they can or to last longer than they feel they have physical strength. So in listening to Elder Holland’s talk, I saw a few talking online about how this idea of redemptive suffering isn’t always healthy for us, that sometimes we can go longer than we should or maintain relationships longer than is healthy or things of that nature because we see it as being a part of the prospect of redemptive suffering. So how do we approach that as disciples who have so much on our plates and are asked to do so much for so many, when we may not feel that we have enough to give to others?


    Kristian Heal: Yeah, I think this is the lovely counterpoint to this notion that sometimes God is working with us through our trials and that then we take upon ourselves this idea and think in some ways we have to punish ourselves as a virtue, that suffering is therefore inherently virtuous. I don’t think that’s the case. I don’t think that suffering is inherently virtuous, but I think that there are moments in which we have trials and a lot of burdens are placed upon us and that God will then lighten those or that God will bless us in the moment and that we can come through those things. But I think we should never place ourselves in a situation of continual suffering, abusive relationships for example, or in a workplace which is particularly difficult, or these experiences where we are constantly being confronted by those who have caused abuse or pain, I think don’t need to be perpetuated. But it is possible to find healing and to move away from those experiences.


    Joseph Stuart: Thanks for sharing that. And it reminds me of a great article that former Institute fellow, Diedre Green wrote that we will be sure to link to in the show notes which you can sign up for at mi.byu.edu. And Kristian, moving forward, I’m thinking about Joseph and Benjamin and thinking about the technicolor dreamcoat here, that beautiful moment of reconciliation of Joseph recognizing that his brothers would be willing to sacrifice for Benjamin when they chose to sell him into slavery. Were there any sort of special feelings or things we should know about in this meeting of Joseph and Benjamin?


    Kristian Heal: Joseph seems determined to get Benjamin to Egypt. We hear, and it’s an interesting aspect of Biblical narrative when Joseph is questioning his brothers, right? They’re in Genesis 42, that the questions he asked are different than the ones that the brothers report. And when the brothers go back to see Jacob what they say is Joseph wanted to know about your father and your brother. So Joseph’s concerns are for Benjamin and for Jacob. He’s also concerned about his dreams being fulfilled. So he does want all his brothers there it seems, at that moment to bring about his dreams, but he really wants to see Benjamin and sort of see this in this moment, this beautiful moment when Benjamin arrives. Do remember that these are the only two children of Rachel. Benjamin is born as their mother died in childbirth and he’s the last surviving connection for Jacob between him and Joseph and Jacob and Joseph and Jacob and Rachel. But he’s Joseph’s brother as well, and so there’s all kinds of special things going on between these two brothers and this creates a really interesting and sort of poignant, dramatic moment. In the Syriac tradition when the Syriac scholars read and interpreted the Bible, one of the things they love to do was retell or dramatize particular scenes, particular these poignant moments when there’s a lot of tension in the narrative or put in their own kind of dramatic moment. And they would use a genre that they adapted from Ancient Near Eastern literature called the dispute or dialogue poem. This is a genre that was used in Ancient Samarian, and still today in modern Arabic, in which two figures or two entities would argue about which one of them was the best in the dispute poem or will dialogue with each other in the dialogue poem. So other Biblical examples include the dispute between Cain and Abel, dispute between Joseph and Potipher’s wife, a dialogue even in New Testament stories between the angel that Jesus told would go to Paradise and the angel standing to guard the way into Paradise. And so these are wonderful moments which are given in church. These are liturgical dramas that were performed and sung at antiphonally, so you have two choirs, and we have one of these for this moment where Joseph and Benjamin meet, and thought it would be nice to share this today. This text has just been edited and translated by Sebastian Brock, one of our teachers at Oxford, and he’s given this lovely rendering in the original Syriac. It has 22 verses arranged as an acrostic with the first letter of the Syriac alphabet, and we have three parts. There is a narrator, that Rachel has kindly agreed to play, a Joseph that Joseph will play, and I’ll play Benjamin and we’ll go through this and you can hear how scripture was imagined in an ancient Syriac context.


    Narrator: Oh my friends, you have not seen two brothers sitting and talking to one another without the one knowing who the other was.


    Joseph: I’m amazed my boy. How saddened is your soul and how grieved is your heart and how tears pour forth.


    Benjamin: I will reveal to you oh, king the great pain that I possess, that burns me without leaving me. The light of my eyes, Joseph.


    Joseph: Wonder takes hold of me, amazement greatly astonishes me at how you are weeping over one when you have ten other brothers. Listen to me, at this word, my child, which I shall tell you. The ten other brothers that you have, rejected Joseph.


    Benjamin: How should I reject Nisan’s (16:18) rose, Joseph? How should I forget the light of my eyes, Joseph? Trembling has fallen upon me and fear and fright on the one hand, you my lord king, and on the other at my brothers.


    Joseph: As the Lord God lives, and by the life of the king of Egypt, no evil will befall you my boy. Reveal to me the truth.


    Benjamin: If I were to reveal to you the terrible news of Joseph, maybe you too, my Lord King, would be weeping for Joseph.


    Joseph: Whom did Joseph resemble my boy? Reveal to me the truth. Maybe you’ll be disclosing to me that his likeness has been seen by you among the slaves. Recount it to me rightly. Reveal the truth and tell me. Whom did Joseph resemble? My boy, reveal and explain it to me.


    Benjamin: Joseph has no resemblance among kings or among slaves. There is one person to whom I would liken him, but I’m afraid to tell you. My Lord King, he resembles you and his face is like your face. The scent that comes to me from you is like the scent of my brother Joseph.


    Narrator: Weeping befell between them, they began to embrace one another. They were asking each other all that had happened to them.


    Joseph: What is the old man Jacob doing? My boy, reveal to me the truth. Ever since I departed from him, my boy, reveal to me and tell me.


    Benjamin: His eyes flow with tears, his white hair is soiled with ashes, he has made sackcloth his clothing, ever since he learned that you were dead, Joseph. His mouth solemnly swears by God without ceasing that he will never be comforted until he sees Joseph. When he is thirsty, it is his tears that he drinks. When he is hungry, it is ashes he consumes and he swears that I will not reject the light of my eyes, Joseph.


    Joseph: Arise my boy and go and take my garments to the old man Jacob. Show him my likeness and tell him that Joseph is alive.


    Narrator: He had breathed the scent of the dead, but now the old man Jacob said, “It is the scent of a dead man who has come alive. My boy, reveal to me the truth.” Praise be to God who brought Joseph to life for Jacob and he told him about his youthfulness and about his return to him. Thanks be to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and upon you the audience. May his mercy continually be outpoured.


    Kristian Heal: Thanks to you both. That was really wonderful. I find this to be a splendid example of this imaginative engagement with scripture. And we can see all kinds of different aspects of the Joseph story being brought in, as this particular encounter between the two brothers, at the moment of recognition is dramatized.


    Joseph Stuart: I also think there’s a parallel to modern saints today, thinking about church history and acting out particularly moving scenes from church history. And I think that we can also learn that it’s appropriate to use imagination. Things don’t have to be 100% historically verifiable for them to have meaning for them to inspire us. And that’s something we can learn from these types of plays as well.


    Rachel Madsen: Yeah. I think this goes along even with the idea of likening as Nephi uses it, one thing I find very powerful in scriptures as a whole is that we take Isaiah to be scripture, and we take Nephi’s interpretation of Isaiah and its application to us as scripture just as much. I think that in being able to interpret scripture and actually say, this is what is powerful to me and I’m actually going to play that up. I’m going to try and to get as close to a sense of the divine as I can through a moment of such emotion and raw familiar redemption even, to kind of play that for ancient people to be able to interpret it and not just personally, but have that to be something that they had in a community even maybe not theatrical but written, published since. That is really powerful to me.


    Joseph Stuart: Same here. It also brings to me the idea that those in the audience hearing the poem wouldn’t have identified with being an Egyptian viceroy who had risen from being a slave to being a very powerful person but nevertheless would’ve recognized their lives in Joseph life, but also in Benjamin’s life and in Jacob’s life and in the brothers’ lives and that brings into question for me in these chapters in Genesis. Who is this story actually about? There’s lots of characters, but who should we see as maybe the main?


    Rachel Madsen: This is a great question and something that I was really struck by as I was studying these chapters. As you said, I grew up with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, not the sons of Jacob. But it seems pretty clear when you actually read Genesis very closely, even Joseph’s story is not about Joseph. It has to be put into context in the entire book. There is before Joseph no really clear cut, good character and so we see even God, as we are given in a portrayal in Genesis, destroys all of humanity at one point and all of these characters are very complicated and even Joseph will often get interpretations where he has a bit of a pride problem. But even so, he’s pretty universally a good guy and that is made far more interesting by the idea that it’s not about him at all. As we get Jacob at the beginning, the story of Jacob is intertwined throughout all of this. He goes through a transformation in himself after Joseph is dead and is said to have believed that all things were against him, which is kind of not something that we revere as a state of being in Christianity. To say that God is a little bit against you is against our idea of being a people of God and Jacob will come and get this whole death scene. Joseph just dies at the end of Genesis 50 and there’s no brava, no big part of that. So we can see him being cut out of the story even in his inheritance not being given to him, but to his two sons. Very fascinating for that to be centered on Jacob.


    Joseph Stuart: Yeah, this is something that maybe it’s fitting and fits into the narrative that Jacob again, is choosing younger sons to continue on the blessings of Abraham. That one’s posterity would be as numerous as the stars in the sky as it were. What I’m interested about though here is that Judah, meaning the tribe of Judah, also seems to be redeemed. We talked at length about Tamar last week and about how the Tribe of Judah originates. But what do you see happening for the people of Judah in these last chapters of Genesis?


    Rachel Madsen: We have to see Joseph as a type of Christ. There is so much in there from being wrongly accused for immorality, being punished, being held in a dark prison of sorts and then getting out of that as a king to help save lives of others. In verse 8 of chapter 42 we read that, “Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him.” As a Christian audience or even an audience familiar with Christianity, we can’t read that and not think about Jesus. But the story of Joseph is not so much about his journey, but the redemption that it brings Judah which is really interesting when you look at a parallel brought me to think about whether the story of Jesus is about His story of overcoming. Is it about the Atonement, or is it to us personalized to say this is about my redemption? And that’s a tangent you can take for a really long time. But what we see in Genesis is that Judah gets all these little inserts, right? We have the story of Tamar and it seems to be paralleling a lot of King David, even Solomon at the time, that despite his sinful relationships in the family, he is still worthy of bearing a Messianic line. Many scholars agree that the text is used to aswadge people under King David’s rule that he is meant to be leading them. The sins which Judah was presented as having parallel the sins that David committed whether that be that he was the youngest child, which is a theme we see throughout Genesis as being the younger child gets the ruler, the birthright, or whatnot. His fraternal conflicts which we also see throughout the book, his adultery with Bathsheba, hence the Tamar story, just the general background of being a shepherd married to a certain Bathshewa and having a daughter and daughter-in-law named Tamar, it is the story of the past, but it fits in all these anticipations of the future. And as we see Judah being the mediator for the brothers, Judah that makes Joseph weep. That is something we can’t ignore the prominence of Judah that this is written by his seed in order to defend their rule and even Jacob blesses, and gives these willy nilly blessings to all the tribes and then Judah gets this nice and you will be king upon king upon king upon king! It’s a very large redemption from not such a great state in the beginning.


    Joseph Stuart: So what do you see in thinking about Judah’s relationship to his brothers here. So Judah becomes the king upon king as you say, but how does that relate to the rest of the family?


    Rachel Madsen: Yeah. So throughout our Abrahamic story in the Old Testament, even before Abraham we get to Cain and Abel where Cain asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” And kind of the implied answer is yes! You are supposed to be looking out for your brother, and brother maybe in a larger sense but here it is even familial. And we take a lot of importance familial lines, even patriarchal lines of these families so there is a clear importance even in the union to Israel that they have and the union to each other that they have. And Judah along with the rest of the brothers, had completely betrayed that was not Joseph’s keeper in any way sense or form by selling him into slavery. But finally, when Benjamin is framed for thievery, Judah offers himself in place of Benjamin. And this is the first time we really see in the book of Genesis someone actually being their brother’s keeper. Even Joseph is trying to imprison his brothers, right? It is only Judah that is able to say, I am looking out for my brother.


    Joseph Stuart: I think that’s the perfect place to end this week. Have a blessed week y’all.


    Thank you for listening to Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast. Could you please rate, review, and subscribe to the podcast wherever you are listening to this podcast and follow us on social media at @byumaxwell on YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, FaceBook and sign up for our newsletter at mi.byu/edu? Thank you, and have a great week.